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Tuesday
Apr062010

the smartpoint versus the tipping point

Most people are familiar with positive and negative feedback, otherwise known as vicious and virtuous circles. With positive feedback the more something happens the more it happens. It’s fuelled by its own increase. This is the vicious circle: a drunk man wants to drink more, a fat woman eats to assuage her guilt at being fat, which makes her fatter, so she feels guiltier and eats more, or global warming in its current projection- the warmer it gets the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere the warmer it gets.

Negative feedback is control feedback, a virtuous circle. A sober woman drinks a little, she feels a little different so she slows up drinking. A thin man eats too much, feels bloated and stops eating. The running man feels hot, starts to sweat and cools down.

Negative feedback takes care of itself. But many of the problems of the world fall into the positive feedback corner. Indigenous Amazon Indians have lost their land. They protest violently. The world loses sympathy. While the world looks the other way they lose more land. An explosive child gets frustrated by rules and explodes with anger. His parents punish him for breaking the rules of politeness. He gets even angrier as he has just violated even more rules. An unfit man doesn’t feel like exercising so he doesn’t, and gets even less fit.

OK- you get the picture. Now take the fat variant: fatsos  feel less fit, do less exercise, get fatter, do less exercise, get fatter etc. This is very hard to break. Where do you start? Do you cut into the food supplies, do you force the fatties to run and eat pain instead of breakfast, or a bit of both? How do you decide the targets though? How much exercise? How much weight loss? That’s not easy and that’s where attempts to solve problems fail.

But all you actually need to do is shift to a negative feedback situation. Ordinary shaped people feel fit enough to do exercise so they remain ordinary shaped. This is the Aardvarkian Smartpoint. The point where a positive feedback situation flips to becoming a negative feedback situation. Vicious becomes virtuous. Once it’s virtuous you can forget about it. It’s running itself. It’s solving itself.

Instead of fixing on hopeless or imaginary targets when trying to solve a vicious circle we should look for the aardvarkian smartpoint. The smartpoint becomes the focus of our efforts. With a fat person you have to ask them, or they ask themselves, not ‘what weight do you want to be?’ because that is unreal. Rather, ‘at what weight will you feel like exercising’. Chances are it’s higher than the ideal weight. But that doesn’t matter. Because once they are into a virtuous circle they can easily get down to an ideal weight since they are now in control of the checks and balances.

With an explosive child one should ask, not ‘how can I get him to behave’ but rather, ‘at what point does he not explode at rules’. All you need to do is keep the rules, and his irritability below that point. Let’s say you can’t get up early enough to do something that lacks urgency but is still important. Instead of focusing on an ideal ‘early time’ that is probably demoralisingly early, fix on a smartpoint, a time that is early enough for you to do a reasonable job and see the benefit of getting up early. You have become more aware of what is involved. Once convinced of the benefits it’s easy to get up earlier still.

The smartpoint is somewhat different from the tipping point. Tipping points are more concerned with macro effects such as contagion and the spread of disease. The tipping point is often a positive feedback loop created by a critical number of viral connections. It is about spreading and increase- good or bad. The smartpoint is about control. It is a precise micro effect: the move from a positive feedback to a negative feedback situation.

The smartpoint is an intervention device for breaking vicious circles. Most addictions are characterised by a vicious circle- even coffee drinkers think they’ll feel ‘better’ after yet another coffee, and so it continues. But take the coffee example- instead of trying to give it up think of how much coffee you need to drink to feel a sense of discomfort. Over the days find your smartpoint. That shift from trying to fight yourself to becoming aware is a first step to getting out of an addiction pattern.

Smartpoints help, too, when perfectionism spoils everything. If you have a project, say a novel, that won’t work ask yourself where the smartpoint is. At what point does this novel ‘work’ as opposed to ‘not work’. You may be surprised that what at first seems hopeless really needs only a few small but important adjustments. Once a novel ‘works’ you’re in virtuous circle land, as further improvements suggest themselves.

With an expedition I ask where the smartpoint is regarding team numbers. At what point does this expedition become unviable? (the circle being: too few people makes the trip feel ‘unreal’ which serves to turn off attracting people). I find that the viable number is usually not that many, lower than you first imagine. Once you have that core number the project feels ‘real’ and it’s easier to attract others if that is required.

I guess the essence of the smartpoint is that it shifts a vague desire into becoming real. It does this by causing an increase in awareness. And by utilising our knowledge of the benefits of virtuous circles. Instead of making people run the whole way its like saying ‘you only have to run to the bus stop- and then the bus will take you home.’ That’s a lot easier isn’t it?

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